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Published: December 10th 2006
Clambering down from the rickety base-camp bunk-bed, I turn off the 2am alarm and wonder vaguely what was going through my mind when I packed for this trip. Already shivering in the frigid early morning air, I blearily consider my woefully inadequate clothing options. Let me sum it up for you like this: I'm about to climb to the summit of the highest mountain in South East Asia and I don't even have dry underwear to put on. A t-shirt still wet from yesterday's climb, a pair of light running shoes, a thin jumper, rain-jacket, quick-dry travel trousers, a beanie, gloves & a make-shift scarf (the bandanna I used in India to filter out road-dust) complete my rag-tag ensemble. The up-side is that I don't have to decide what to wear; I just put on every single thing I have with me. As I pull them on, wincing as the damp t-shirt clings to my skin, I wonder just how cold it will be up there. I've been told it often dips below freezing. Should I be worried about the fact that I don't have any boxers to wear, and only very thin trousers? Is frostbite a possibility?! In my sleep-befuddled
state, I actually start to genuinely worry about this.
To cut a long story short, I'm here - at the Laban Rata base-camp on Mount Kinabalu (Malaysia) - because Jen & I broke up and I decided to get away for a while and do something 'significant', (eg. climb a mountain). I know that what Jen & I had together was special and I'll always be grateful for the chance we had. But, roughly six weeks after Jen returned to Korea, reality began to set in... She lives in South Korea. I live in Australia. It just wasn't meant to be. The decision to break up was hard for both of us, even though we knew it was for the best. Jen will always be special to me and I am very happy to say that we remain close friends and stay in touch. It has actually been about seven weeks now since we broke up, which also gives you some idea how far behind I am in my blogs. (Since the trip to climb Kinabalu, I also spent twelve amazing days wandering around Burma/Myanmar with a good mate. I hope I'll have time to write that trip up
too before I leave Thailand.) Anyway, I'll say no more about all of that: back to the mountain...
Taking advantage of a week off school - a 'genuine', university-sanctioned holiday! - and a special on selected AirAsia
flights, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to fly to Kota Kinabalu, (in the Malaysian part of Borneo), and climb Mount Kinabalu. This mountain has the distinction of being South East Asia's highest, (4100m), as well as earning Malaysia's first World Heritage listing. I didn't know too much about it, but one of the other exchange students here - Daeng - had been planning to climb it for a long time and decided to join me. Daeng's a fun girl, with a "crazy/weird" (Edwards 2006) sense of humour - it was good times travelling with you Daeng!
Emerging from the mid-renovation shambles of KK's airport, we were literally pounced upon by Vincent, a drug-crazed guest-house owner waiting around for scruffy-looking backpacker types just like ourselves. Since we hadn't made any plans for accommodation, we decided to join the other travellers in Vincent's rusty old van, (once Vincent had finally managed to wrench the battered doors open), and check out Tropicana Lodge
. It ended
up being a brilliant decision. Tropicana was one of the cosiest guesthouses/hostels I've ever stayed in - a real 'home away from home'. And we ended up climbing the mountain with two of the people who caught the Tropicana van with us. Gareth's an Australian engineer, currently working contract jobs in London and travelling all over the world, (his story about a crazy trip to Kabul kept us all entertained at dinner that night). Vananh's an American, although her family's originally from Vietnam. Like Gareth, she works contract jobs (radiologist) and travels a lot
. Two fantastic people who really made the trip a lot of fun. I hope we'll all meet up again somewhere down the road. =)
We spent the next morning wandering around KK, booking base-camp accommodation and stocking up on chocolate & nuts to fuel our climbing efforts. Gareth & I toyed with the idea of buying a bottle of champagne too, to be triumphantly opened (and wildly sprayed around, naturally) upon reaching the summit, but eventually decided it was just too heavy & annoying to climb with. After re-packing our bags, (leaving what I stupidly thought were 'unnecessary' items behind at Tropicana), we caught a
One of many beautiful moths we saw
Nowhere was Kinabalu's biodiversity more apparent than the Men's toilet of our guesthouse - dozens of different & amazing moths at night!
mini-van to the park gates but then opted to stay in the cheaper, privately-owned guesthouses outside the park. Dumping our bags, we set off for a short hike inside the park - a bit of a warm-up for the next day. Almost immediately, we were totally soaked by a sudden & prolonged downpour, which gave us some idea what we were in store for over the next couple of days. We must have looked like half-drowned rats, shivering and bedraggled, as we stumbled out of the hills and into the park Cafe for the nightly 'briefing'. One of the immaculately dressed & made-up park rangers, (have any other visitors noticed how almost all of Kinabalu's park rangers are stunningly beautiful women?!), spent an hour telling the assembled climbers all about the different routes up the mountain, what to expect, warning signs of altitude sickness, and so on. It was here we heard about the Mesilau Trail, an alternative route for those who were up for more of a challenge. Until recently it was only open to scientists & researchers, (it's the area's incredible biodiversity that earned it Malaysia's first World Heritage listing), and is in a more pristine condition than
the normal climbing route. It is significantly steeper & tougher though, and takes an average of 3 hours longer. We decided to use the Mesilau Trail on the way up, and the normal route on the way back down. All I can say is that I'm glad we did it in that order...
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we turned up at the Park HQ at the appointed time to meet our guide, (hiring a guide has been compulsory since a young girl went missing on the mountain a few years ago). Rowdy, (who also referred to himself as "the Dragon" & was something of a character), was casually dressed in denim shorts & thongs. His one concession in terms of being prepared was the small purple umbrella he strolled along with, twirling nonchalantly as he fiddled with his MP3 player. His relaxed approach was definitely reassuring, after we'd seen all the climbers at the briefing the night before, kitted out with the very latest in 'mountain-conquering' gear.
The first day's hike, (from the Park gates up to Laban Rata base-camp), was exhausting. I'm not sure if the trail was genuinely tough or it's just that
I'm badly out of shape. Either way, after a few hours it became a case of just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. The rain didn't help, drizzling a constant cold on us as we plodded along, the drops thunderously loud on our jacket hoods. As for the promised biodiversity, we did see hundreds of pitcher plants, (carnivorous plants; probably Kinabalu's main claim to ecological fame), a red-throated black snake and a few birds. However, a roiling sea of mist constantly swelled and ebbed around us, obscuring any views of more than ten or twenty metres away. Regardless of this, and how tired I became, I thoroughly enjoyed it! It was just great to be out in the bush and brought back memories of childhood hikes through the Chimanimani Mountains in Zimbabwe with my family.
I reached the Laban Rata base-camp late in the afternoon, to find Gareth (who's training to run the London Marathon) well-settled and just tucking into his second bowl of noodles. He looked discouragingly fresh. =P The girls arrived an hour or so later and we sat around the main restaurant area, (it's a pretty well set-up base-camp!), trying to
warm up. We'd been assured of hot showers at our hostel for that night and I'd been looking forward to it all day! Heading up to our tiny room, (two bunk-beds), we dumped our stuff and hit the showers eagerly. Stripping down, I tried to figure out the taps as quickly as possible, already shivering with cold - only to find all the hot water had been used up already... With my spirits crushed, I braved the icy water for a quick rinse-off and then redressed dejectedly, shivering violently now, and returned to the restaurant for more hot noodles. Before bed that night, we all tried to hang/spread our damp clothes out in optimum drying arrangements but nothing seemed to dry at all.
Waking at 2am, (so as to reach the summit around dawn), we dressed quickly, laughing at how unprepared all of us were. This feeling was only heightened when we joined the rest of the assembled climbers. These guys looked liked like they were about to summit Everest or trek to the North Pole - the latest Gore-tex jackets, huge hiking boots, ski goggles, telescopic hiking poles, GPS devices and incredibly bright head-lamps, (I had a tiny
torch - borrowed from the Tropicana - which died about halfway up). Feeling a little nervous now, and slightly ridiculous, we set off in the darkness. However, it wasn't long before the climb started to warm people up, and soon we were passing everyone else as they stopped to peel off layer after Gore-tex-layer. In the dark, we soon became separated from each other - Gareth taking off at super-fit speed, me stumbling after him to try and get at the water-bottle he was carrying, Vananh hot on my heels and Daeng battling altitude sickness (unbeknownst to the rest of us) behind. Unfortunately for Daeng, the altitude hit her quite hard - headache, vomiting and so on - soon after leaving base camp and she had to turn back.
The first half of the summit climb is a hike similar to the rest of the mountain's trails - some stairs, some rocky paths. The second half is much more interesting - thick white ropes snake enticingly up steep rock faces, drawing you ever onwards. Pulling yourself up these ropes, trying to avoid slippery patches of wet rock in the dying beam of your torch, is a lot of fun
and also takes the strain off your legs for a while. The climb seemed to go by fairly quickly and almost before I knew it I'd reached the summit. Gareth was there already, along with half a dozen others, and we had a celebratory drink of cold water, (which sounded much better to me at that stage than champagne!). Vananh arrived soon after, cheeks pink with the cold, and joined us on our summit rock. Sitting there, huddled companionably with the other climbers, we watched as the sun rose slowly, lazily casting its first weak, cold beams of light over the sea of clouds beneath us. It was a very special experience, and one to which my photos do not do any justice at all to. I think I sat there for around an hour, nibbling on chocolate bars, drinking in the view, and wondering what had happened to Daeng. Rowdy appeared eventually, to let us know she'd headed back to base camp already, and we decided to start our descent too.
The climb down was easier, although one of my knees stiffened up and by the time I reached base-camp it was agony. After breakfast in the restaurant,
we set off for the long climb down to the Park gates. I had to take the stairs shuffling sideways like an arthritic crab, and was quite a pathetic sight by the time I finally reached the very welcome sight of the gates. =P Now I know what walking will be like, as an old man. Gareth, on the other hand, had made the descent in some ridiculously fast time and then decided to jog the 2km back to our hostel rather than wait for the bus... =) He still has some training to do before he can match the professionals though. The Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon is used to determine the world champion of 'skyrunning', (racing at high altitude). Competitors run from the park gates to the summit, and then straight back down! And the current record time - wait for it... - is 2 hours and 37 minutes!! Unbelievable! Rowdy told us he'd entered it the year before and done it in 4 hours himself, (on a strict training diet of "beer and cigarettes" as he told us proudly). The Dragon indeed.
Hitching a ride back to Kota Kinabalu, we spent our last couple of days relaxing
at the Tropicana and on the beaches of one of the nearby islands - a perfect end to our mountain-climbing adventure. Lying at sea-level, bathed in gloriously hot sunshine, it was almost hard to believe that I'd been over 4km up the day before, shivering in the cold above the clouds. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and, (now that I can walk again), hope my next mountain won't be too far away. Kilimanjaro, Dad & Joel?... =)
PS. You owe me a coffee Mum.
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